"Bess, You Is My Woman Now": the 1930's picnic dress

Oh, Bess… You is definitely my woman now… at least for the duration of an afternoon at the theater ! The creation my 1930’s feedsack frock for Porgy and Bess involved methods that would have left ingenious housewives of the Great Depression tickled pink.

Let’s begin !

Starting off, my inspiration images were of the sundress worn to the “Kittiwah” Island picnic in Act II of the opera…

Angel Blue as Bess in Porgy and Bess / Metropolitan Opera

Don’t you love the floral print pattern of the material ? I did. So much so that I scoured the web in search of my perfectly matching feedsack print. (More about that in my post about the opera and my guest article for Fabric Mart’s blog.) While researching, I learned how the flour and sugar sacks back in the 30’s and 40’s used to be sold with colorful motifs stamped on them so housewives could sew clothes for their families after using the dry goods inside. Clever ? Yes !

Promotional poster for printed flour sacks

The Porgy and Bess dress had several attributes I wanted to replicate in my own frock. Namely, the underbust gathers, square neckline, and mid-calf hem. I thought of drafting my own pattern from scratch, but what’s the point when a commercial pattern with the same style will do the same ? Seeking simplicity, I perused through my mother’s pattern box and fingered over a never-before-used jumper pattern.

McCall’s 3154

View A, here I come ! Since I only needed the bodice portion of the jumper, I traced its outline onto tissue paper, made the appropriate markings, and rotated the dart from the side to the waist. I also drafted an ascending waist yoke… very vintage.

The original pattern and the new patterns made

My muslin mock-up indicated some impending flaws. The back gaped and the gathers were thick and unflattering, especially when taking into consideration that the muslin was already thin. I ditched the idea. Using some of the same ingenuity from the Depression-era, I experimented with small pleats in place of the gathers, which were much more efficient and comely. I marked ½ inch lines along the area of the waist dart as a guide for the pleats…

…and pinned them in place.

Attaching the waist yoke came next. First, I sewed a row of piping along the bottom seam line of the bodice…

…and then clipped the curves along the seam allowances.

The yoke was now attached !

Time to work on the skirt…

When I assembled my mock-up, I traced a basic A-line skirt pattern and altered the waist measurements to line up with those on the lower portion of the waist yoke. The pattern was straightforward and needed few adjustments once sewn. Two back halves were cut as well as one piece on the fold. I also added a pair of inseam pockets because… well, who doesn’t love pockets ?

The inside of the skirt

Now for the zipper ! Sewing over two rows of piping and seam allowances can be tough on sewing machines… but not for my Baby Lock ! A zipper foot certainly aided in gliding over the hilly terrain.

Sewing the zipper

All that was left was to line the bodice, which also included the waist yoke. The easiest way to go about this was to cut identical pieces of the waist yoke (and remembering to close the dart of the front bodice piece before cutting !), sew them together with the bodice pieces along the seam lines, and then fold under the bottom ½ inch along the lower edge of the waist yoke. Here’s what the inside of the bodice looked like after I “stitched in the ditch” of the bottom row of piping from the front:

The dress basically finished, it was time to add the bows onto the front.

Cutting the right size and shape for a fabric bow can be a toss of the dice. Eyeballing a flat paper pattern piece can at times be tricky when gauging how the pattern will translate into fabric. Because I had such success with the tie bows for the baby clothes I had sewn recently, it followed in my logic that the same pattern would work again.

It didn’t work out. Too long, too flat, too thin ! Back to the drawing board… this time with a free pattern I found online.

Close, but no cigar. However, by modifying the pattern just a bit (and swapping out the pocket lining material for the floral stretch poplin), I felt I could have a winner on my hands…

Success !

The additional ¼ inch seam allowance created a perfectly fashionable bow, which was pinched together in the center and sewn with a folded rectangle of fabric for the knot.

The bows were just subtle enough sewn down the front of the bodice, but too stiff for the tops of the shoulder straps.

Show time !

I wore a curly 30’s style wig and carried my mother’s Nantucket basket purse for my sundries.

Every project has a flaw and in this dress, it was the shoulder strap placement. I hypothesized that along the way in the multiple manipulations of the original pattern, the shoulder strap became deformed, was cut too wide, and as a result, wanted to slide off my shoulders. Therefore, I found myself constantly checking to ensure the dress concealed my bra straps. As evidenced by some of the pictures, that wasn’t always accomplished. Oh, well !

The dress had flaws, Bess had flaws. Perhaps the old line was more pertinent than I realized─ “Bess, we two is one !”

Toi, Toi, Toi,

Mary Martha

Porgy and Bess

Folk tale. Sing-a-long staple. Twentieth century masterpiece. Porgy and Bess is beloved for many reasons, but there’s probably none greater than being America’s opera. The title protagonists ─ lovable cripple, Porgy, and well-meaning drug addict, Bess, offer glimpses of an unlikely love by an even more unlikely pair in the Gershwins’ classic, which features hit tunes like “Summertime”, “I Got Plenty O’Nuttin'”, and “Ain’t Necessarily So”, just to name a few.

Angel Blue as Bess and Eric Owens as Porgy in Porgy and Bess / Metropolitan Opera

This was the first time in over 30 years that Porgy and Bess was making an appearance at the Met. In James Robinson’s new production, a highly skilled ensemble cast sauntered around the planked floor of Catfish Row, a slum in Charleston, South Carolina. Tough-talking matriarch Maria (played by veteran mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves), devoted young parents Clara and Jake, Bible-thumping Serena, slithering Sportin’ Life, and Bess’s brutish ex-lover Crown rounded out the cast of dynamic characters. While intentionally created to be rudimentary in its design, the linear wood slats of the settlement almost looked like a playground jungle gym with its inhabitants hanging out of open window frames and weaving around the pilings below.

A scene from Porgy and Bess / Metropolitan Opera

Also swinging beneath the rafters was Gershwin’s jazzy score, which easily identified itself as a frequenter of non-operatic revues. Because of its atypical approach in music (it’s not your run-of-the-mill bel canto or verismo !), I couldn’t help but think that Porgy and Bess belonged more on Broadway as a musical than it did at the Met as an opera. There was too much talk and jive and not enough singing for my tastes. Nevertheless, the opera made for an enjoyable afternoon of spirited routines and recognizable melodies.

A scene from Porgy and Bess / Metropolitan Opera

Porgy and Bess takes place during the early 1930’s as the Great Depression doles out its hardships. Along with the coastal Charlestonian locale, where a battalion of reeds stand tall on bordering estuaries, I had plenty of costume ideas swirling in my head… Ultimately, my plan was to blend the two setting features into a feedsack print sundress that would be perfect for a picnic on Kittiwah Island, just as in the opera. Using the past performance pictures from the English National Opera and Dutch National Opera as my inspiration (the Met’s production would be identical), I had my vision set.

Nicole Campbell as Bess and Nmon Ford as Crown in English National Opera’s Porgy and Bess

Bess’s picnic dress conveyed a myriad of 1930’s details in its design: underbust gathers, a separate waist yoke, and buckle tie bows to embellish the frock. Locating the right material was the first step and boy, did I find it ! I had one uncompromising requisite when shopping and that was that the fabric chosen HAD to match a pair of strappy block heel sandals I had in my closet. No exceptions ! Although I had perused the web and ordered samples in search of my ideal “feedsack floral”, I wasn’t wholly satisfied with the printed patterns and/or the colors… until I opened the newest edition of my swatch club mailer and pointed to a cotton stretch poplin. “That’s it !” I rejoiced.

Cotton stretch poplin and coordinating pocket lining material with block heel sandals

The fabric matched the shoes almost perfectly and I was (mostly) pleased with my cute 30’s sundress. Too bad the weather was nasty the day of the opera… I had to bundle my bare legs in a blanket at the theater because of the cold, wet February front that had wafted its way across the state. Ick !

The weather may have been less than ideal that day, but the warmth of “Summertime” and the endearment of America’s greatest opera, Porgy and Bess, were enough to hearten the shrillest skies.

Toi, Toi, Toi,

Mary Martha


Curious about how I fashioned my feedsack frock ? Check out my tutorial post on its creation !

Cast and Credits:

Porgy and Bess ─ George Gershwin (1935)
Live in HD air date: February 1, 2020

Cast:
Bess ─ Angel Blue
Clara ─ Golda Schultz
Serena ─ Latonia Moore
Maria ─ Denyce Graves
Sportin’ Life ─ Frederick Ballantine
Porgy ─ Eric Owens
Crown ─ Alfred Walker
Jake ─ Donovan Singletary

Credits:
Conductor ─ David Robertson
Production ─ James Robinson
Set Designer ─ Michael Yeargan
Costume Designer ─ Catherine Zuber
Lighting Designer ─ Donald Holder
Projection Designer ─ Luke Halls
Choreographer ─ Camille A. Brown
Fight Director ─ David Leong
Live in HD Director ─ Gary Halvorson
Host ─ Audra McDonald

Manon Lescaut

With an updated setting of occupied Paris during WWII, the Met’s volatile new production of Puccini’s Manon Lescaut brought out the glamour, darkness, and moral ambiguity of film noir. And just as with most Hollywood movies of the 1940’s, drama mottled every facet of Abbé Prevost’s salacious story.
But the most unforeseen action occurred off stage when Roberto Alagna stepped into the leading role of des Grieux with only 16 days to learn the part by memory. His alacrity paid off; he sounded terrific ! He also paired well with the statuesque Kristine Opolais, who, being of an above average height, exchanged her pumps for flats to better suit the abbreviated height of her fill-in des Grieux. How strange it felt to my eye to see a woman in flats in the 1940’s…

Roberto Alagna as des Grieux and Kristine Opolais as Manon Lescaut / Metropolitan Opera

Also confounding my visual perceptions were the distorted sets of Richard Eyre’s production. The swooping stairs that spanned across the stage made me fearful for the chorus members having to maneuver them. However, practice makes perfect and no false steps were made. Whew !

A scene from Sir Richard Eyre’s Manon Lescaut / Metropolitan Opera

While glamour is always a good thing, the overwhelming theme of illicit sex in Manon Lescaut was rather repugnant to me: the throngs of much older men scheming to entrap a young, innocent woman was not my idea of romance. Coupled by the dark overtones of the tumultuous setting, the feeling I had while watching Manon Lescaut was that of bitter cold and dampness ─ I wanted to crawl into a corner and wait for things to pass over ! As such, the opera ended in shambles.

The final scene of Manon Lescaut / Metropolitan Opera

No, I didn’t care for Manon Lescaut. However, there was a silver lining to the new production and that was the swishy skirts and tilted millinery of 1940’s fashion ! If there’s one thing I enjoy more than others, it’s historical fashion and having the chance to experience a different period of clothing and mannerism. Of course, much research goes into my outfits when there’s a specific look I need to emulate, but fortunately I found just the ticket in one of my mother’s old dresses. Since I was a child, I have loved the pink and cream striped dress that has hung in the closet for years and one day when I plucked up the nerve to try it on for size, it fit ! The button loop closures at the waist are my favorite detail.

Pearls were a must as well as an elegant chignon, but I needed something more to aid in the cause… a hat was the likely choice. Thankfully, I was able to borrow a darling fascinator complete with birdcage veil ─ it was perfect for my desired look ! Without it, I wouldn’t have felt near the woman of the 40’s as I did while peeking through its tiny mesh windows. Now if only I had had a decent pair of pumps…

Thank you, Aunt Belinda !

I may not care whether I see Manon Lescaut ever again, but I do wish another occasion would arise for feminine fashion of the Forties !

Toi, Toi, Toi,

Mary Martha

Cast and Credits:

Manon Lescaut ─ Giacomo Puccini (1893)
Live in HD air date: March 5, 2016

Cast:
Manon Lescaut ─ Kristine Opolais
Des Grieux ─ Roberto Alagna
Lescaut ─ Massimo Cavalletti
Geronte ─ Brindley Sherratt

Credits:
Conductor ─ Fabio Luisi
Production ─ Sir Richard Eyre
Set Designer ─ Rob Howell
Costume Designer ─ Fotini Dimou
Lighting Designer ─ Peter Mumford
Choreographer ─ Sara Erde
Live in HD Director ─ Gary Halvorson
Host ─ Deborah Voigt